For Sale: what's in a nun's closet? | Calendar | Chicago Reader

For Sale: what's in a nun's closet? 

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Lloyd Levin might seem an unlikely guide to the pristine realm of the Sisters of Christian Charity, Daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception. In the 1970s he appeared in these pages as an alternative-lifestyle guru, a silver-tongued champion of gays, swingers, and recreational drug users who was spearheading a scheme he called All Together, Inc., an organization intended to weld society's diverse naughty people into a lucrative market segment and sell them insurance. But today he's a partner in an agency that's presiding over a sale of the nuns' possessions, recounting the history of their alternative lifestyle with the same enthusiasm he once displayed for smokers and swappers.

"It all started with Mother Pauline," Levin begins, settling himself on a bench in a dimly lit hall on the fourth floor of the Wilmette Motherhouse. At 67, he's nursing a bad hip and leg, and he needs to get comfortable. "Mother Pauline founded the order in Germany in 1849," he says. "What we have here is a telescope back into history."

According to her biographers, Pauline von Mallinckrodt was born in Minden in 1817 and raised in luxury. Her father was a high-ranking Prussian official. Both her parents came from aristocratic families, but they had what then constituted a seriously mixed marriage: her father was Protestant, her mother devoutly Catholic. Despite a government decree that children take their father's religion, Pauline was raised in her mother's faith. This had a dampening effect on her father's career, but the Mallinckrodts' life was still a round of dinner parties and balls, and their palatial homes were regularly visited by political movers and shakers. Among them was a fledgling lawyer named Otto von Bismarck who, like many of their young male visitors, cast an interested eye on the charming Pauline (apparently more of a charmer than a looker).

Pauline, however, had eyes only for her cousin Fritz, a dashing military officer. Papa disapproved. At 18, in the aftermath of her mother's death from typhoid, she gave up the idea of marriage and devoted herself to family, church, and the throngs of poor people living in the shadow of her abundance.

Like many affluent women of the 19th century, young Pauline visited the poor in their homes and nursed their sick, but in 1840 she came up with a concept that boosted her charity work to another level: with her own money, she opened a day-care center for poor children in the city of Paderborn, the first of its kind. She started with eight kids and a year later had close to a hundred, including a number of blind children who in particular drew her attention. By the end of the decade she had been instrumental in establishing the first state schools for the blind, and she'd created her own rapidly growing order of nuns dedicated to education. During the 1850s and '60s, her Sisters of Christian Charity expanded to other towns, opening a series of schools. In the early 1870s, however, with her former friend Bismarck in power, all educators who belonged to religious orders were booted from German schools. As a result, members of her order began to emigrate to the United States in 1873, serving poor parishes that needed help. In 1916 they built their headquarters on what is now Ridge Road. Initially a training school and college for nuns, the imposing yellow-brick building also housed Mallinckrodt High School, a Catholic school for girls, from 1923 to 1960. In 1968 Mallinckrodt Junior College opened to lay students, and from 1982 to 1991 it operated as a four-year school.

Now the Sisters of Christian Charity are dwindling; only 23 nuns live in the Motherhouse, most of them elderly. Loyola University is using part of their building, and in 1999 the school will take it over entirely. In preparation the sisters began to think about scaling back. In spite of their spartan lifestyle they'd accumulated many odds and ends, things people donated or willed to them, things from the school. There were carved sideboards, claw-foot bathtubs, and dozens of vintage dining room chairs. There were school desks, crucifixes of all materials and sizes, and a closet full of wedding gowns. There was a framed scene of the Last Supper done entirely in lace, a hand-painted fire curtain from the Wilmette Theatre, a spinning wheel, an opium pipe. There was an eight-foot oil painting in which Jesus' ancient followers wear the faces of old Mallinckrodt students. And more, much more. Wondering what value such items might have and how to dispose of them, the nuns sent a couple of scouts to a suburban antique show. That's were Levin came in.

"I saw two sisters, and they seemed to be a little lost," Levin says. "At that time I had written a column on antiques, and I also did a radio show. I just walked up to them and said, 'Sisters, can I help you in any way?' And we got friendly, and the next thing I know, a year later they called me and said, 'We have some things we'd like to dispose of; maybe you'd find something of interest.' I came in here, and it was overwhelming, because they kept taking me from room to room, filled with this merchandise. I suggested the best thing, rather than trying to sell it piece by piece, would be to let us come in and do a sale."

Levin is up now, walking through the rooms, talking up the lines of a mahogany record cabinet, the cat's face hand-painted on a child's tambourine, the three-piece set of spare oak furniture that occupied a nun's bedroom. "We've got a number of these," he says, pausing at the bedroom set. Sitting under the eaves in a large mint-green room with wooden floors and silver-painted radiators, it consists of a straight-backed chair, a dry sink, and a narrow bed with four tall posts. There's a place for a mirror over the dry sink, but no mirror. "They told me something about this," Levin says. "They used to sleep in dormitories. Each of these beds would have white curtains strung around it, hung from the posts. That was their private space."

The sale started last weekend and continues from 9 to 4 Friday and Saturday at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Christian Charity, 1041 Ridge Road, Wilmette. For more information, call Yesterday's Treasure Estate Sales, 847-398-5525. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lloyd Levin photo by Randy Tunnell.

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